Lyra Belacqua: A Fictional Feminist
The recent publication of Philip Pullman’s ‘The Book of Dust’ brought with it, for me, a wave of nostalgia. Although Lyra Belacqua, the fictional heroine of my youth, features only as a baby, the novel still centres on her. I bought the book and read it within three days, desperate to re-engage with the alluring world of witches, daemons and armoured bears that so captivated me as a child. Although I certainly found other fictional females intriguing, even admirable, Lyra was the first that I could empathize with as a distinctively complex individual, and one that overtly defied female stereotypes. Indeed, she inhabits a role often reserved for male characters: the selfless, brave adventurer, determined to defeat evil. She rejects traditional femininity (that disturbingly inhibitive force in fiction and reality) repeatedly damaging her dresses when roaming the rooftops of Jordan College and returning from every escapade with dirty fingernails and tangled hair. Lyra marks out a space for herself in the male world of knowledge, power and adventure; she rejects gendered constraints upon her body and mind. This is exemplified repeatedly throughout the trilogy: most of Lyra’s actions are rebelliously deviant and push the boundaries of societally sanctioned female behaviour. From fighting with the Gyptians and rescuing children from the Gobblers, to freeing the souls of the dead, Lyra repeatedly spits in the face of patriarchal expectation.
However, Lyra is more than a feisty child determined to have her own way. She enables the inversion of Christian doctrine in the text, which Pullman depicts as dangerous and destructive. She is the New Eve, a symbol not of sin and ruin, but of knowledge and hopeful progress. Lyra, through her use of the alethiometer, instigates humanity’s intellectual growth. The seemingly idyllic Garden of Eden is revealed to be a deceptive prison, a confining space that fosters ignorance. As saviour of the world, it would be easy for Lyra to become a shining figurehead, her identity enveloped by the immensity of her task. However, despite such overwhelming pressure Lyra retains her distinctive character and essential humanity, warts and all.
Lyra is not perfect and, for me, it is her flaws that make her such a valuable heroine. She is strong and assertive but often gratingly arrogant and disrespectful, infuriating and even decisively sexist. She is derisive of female scholars, and seems mistrusting of most women she encounters. Surrounded by the solid patriarchal structure of Jordan College, in which all powerful figures are male, it is unsurprising that she has internalized misogyny. What redeems her is her maturation throughout the trilogy. She experiences love, loss and personal growth that enable her to adapt, learn more about the world, and escape the fate many heroines are resigned to: that of immobility and stunted identity. Some feminist critics see Lyra’s alteration throughout the novels as negative; her relationship with Will instigated in ‘The Subtle Knife’, has been perceived as her bowing down to societal expectation, becoming dependent on a man for physical direction and emotional validation. However, I interpret her overt vulnerability and less-constrained emotional expression as a positive development. Surely, as a distinctively human character, capable of emotional vacillation, she is more believable and able to inspire a more genuine response from readers.
Lyra stood out to me when I first read these books, and on every occasion since, as she is different from other fictional female characters I had encountered when reading in my childhood and early teens. Most other heroines seemed defined purely by their kindness, their humility and their generosity; these are undeniably admirable qualities but potentially damaging when manifested in isolation. We need more complex female characters that are bold, sassy, brave and undeniably present; that dictate their own narratives and can act as relatable role models in children’s lives. Hopefully Lyra has blazed the way for more female characters to befriend bears, ride with witches and save the world.
Title Image: 'Hero 06: Lyra Belacqua' by Rory Phillips.